One of the most difficult things to do when designing a throwback, old school Dungeons and Dragons game is to figure out the house rules for alignment. Alignment is simultaneously of little and huge importance in the game. Most particularly, the little boxes that it puts the PCs in is simultaneously an ingenious way of settling into character and the most limiting, unrealistic part of the game.
This is further confused by alignment restrictions in game — Paladins must be Lawful Good. Druids must be True Neutral. Clerics should mimic their god’s alignment (or not). Rangers must be Good.
What does this all mean? How do we incorporate into our game?
House Rule 1: Steal from 4E
One of the good things about the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons is that it has an alignment choice of “unaligned”. House rule number one is to allow unaligned characters into the game. PCs are permitted to lack a worldview.
PCs can now be good, evil, lawful, chaotic, lawful good, lawful evil, chaotic good or chaotic evil. Or unaligned.
Neutral has also disappeared from our alignment list. We will have to revisit this later, before deciding whether or not neutrality has a place in our game.
Most characters in the game world — and likely most of the PCs — ought to be unaligned. After all, who sits around wondering if their actions are Lawful or Chaotic, Good or Evil?
Theologians and philosophers, that’s who. When was the last time you saw a theologian or philosopher battling a gelatinous cube in a dungeon?
House Rule 2: Define your terms
The Player’s Handbook goes through each alignment and gives it a strict definition.
For instance, Lawful Neutral:
Those of this alignment view regulation as all-important, taking a middle road betwixt evil and good. This is because the ultimate harmony of the world -and the whole of the universe – is considered by lawful neutral creatures to have its sole hope rest upon law and order. Evil or good are immaterial beside the determined purpose of bringing all to
predictability and regulation.
With something similarly heavy for each alignment, it is difficult to see how two PCs of differing alignments could ever coexist throughout an entire adventuring campaign. Additionally, one cannot simply be Lawful. One must also choose “good”, “evil”, or decide that such a choice is “immaterial” and purposely take a “middle road” between them.
The good/evil and law/chaos axes, however, are difficult to define and fraught with philosophical wonderings. This is dangerous stuff for the DM who just wants to get on with it. Yet it must be done.
Law vs Chaos
The first edition of AD&D defines Chaotic Neutral as follows:
Above respect for life and good, or disregard for life and promotion of evil, the chaotic neutral places randomness and disorder. Good and evil are complimentary balance arms. Neither are preferred, nor must either prevail, for ultimate chaos would then suffer.
Lawful seeks out order, regulation and predictability; chaos seeks randomness and disorder. “Randomness” appears repeatedly throughout all the chaotic alignments, which has lead more than one gamer to play chaotic characters as crazy (which is not an alignment at all).
“Law and order”, on the other hand, is the recurring phrase throughout the lawful alignments.
This, as you might have guessed, seems most unsatisfactory. Must a lawful character always obey the law? Clearly the answer is no — a Lawful Good character, for example, would face quite the dilemma with an evil law. But what of a Lawful Neutral character? What of a law that formented disorder? Must all laws be good? What happens when a law of the church conflicts with a law of the state?
So what do Law and Chaos mean?
One of my favourite definitions comes courtesy of Jeff Rients:
Ragnarok just started. Aligned on one side are the Kirby versions of Thor, Odin, etc. On the other side are Cthulhu and Shub-Niggurath. Where does your PC stand?
A) I fight alongside Thor!
B) I fight alongside Cthulhu!
C) Where do I stand? Are you crazy? I get the hell out of there and find a place to hide!
If you answered A your character is Lawful. If you answered B then your character is Chaotic. If you chose C then you’re Neutral.
We like this definition.
Lawful characters approve of the system in which things work. They do not necessarily believe in order (as in “law & order”), but they believe in the way things are ordered. Sky above. Earth below. And so on.
Chaotic characters disapprove of the system of things, and seek to usurp it — or would seek to usurp it, if they had an opportunity, and could be bothered.
Essentially, it takes a law-and-order VS anti-establishment point of view, but elevates it to a cosmic level. We love this, at the Big Bad Blog.
For many, their position vis-a-vis the cosmic law/chaos debate will likely also reflect their day-to-day interactions with more earthly authorities, but nothing stops a chaotic character from being an upstanding and involved citizen of the metropolis. A lawful character can be a lone anarchist looking to bring down the government. These situations are unlikely, not impossible.
Good vs Evil
With Law and Chaos sorted, we now enter the even more difficult minefield of “good” and “evil”. From the Player’s Handbook:
Neutral Evil: The neutral evil creature views law and chaos as unnecessary considerations, for pure evil is all-in-all. Either might be used, but both are disdained as foolish clutter useless in eventually bringing maximum
evilness to the world.
Neutral Good: Unlike those directly opposite them (neutral evil) in alignment, creatures of neutral good believe that there must be some regulation in combination with freedoms if the best is to be brought to the world – the most beneficial conditions for living things in general and intelligent creatures in particular.
Completely useless tripe. “Maximum evilness”? “The most beneficial conditions”?
Other good and evil alignments seem to equate good or evil on the value that a person gives to “life”, “beauty” and “freedom”. Presumably the life and freedom of others (not oneself). Beauty … well there’s another philosophical trap there — the DM already has enough of those on his plate, thank you very much.
But this gives us something to work with, and we state our good/evil paradigm as follows:
Good characters are those who fight for others. They hold a respect for the rights of others (what these rights are might be defined by some other ethos), and actively look to fight for these rights. At the extreme end of the spectrum, a good character is willing to make personal sacrifices to fight for the rights of others.
Evil characters could not care the least for others. They are not necessarily completely self-interested — they could be worshippers of a god, or devoted to some philosophy or higher purpose — but the evil character would not hesitate to torture, kill, imprison or otherwise brutalize complete innocents, if they can see that they personally benefit (or their chosen cause benefits) from this activity. At the extreme end of the spectrum, an evil character actually enjoys one (or more) of these activities and would go out of their way to participate in it.
Again, most people would be unaligned on the good/evil scale. Most of us are not active actors for other people’s rights, but we still respect them. This is an imperfect definition, to be sure, but while we are all fairly certain of how a good character should be played, our evil characters tend to be caricatures, if we are just trying to maximize our evilness.
Once again, good characters are capable of killing innocents, so long as doing so is a sacrifice for the greater good. Evil characters do not (necessarily) need to step on everybody they can — but they will do so if it happens to be convenient.
Beyond good and evil
One thing that gets lost in the lawful/chaotic/good/evil discussion is that there exist ethos beyond the alignment system.
Lawful Good, for example, seems to have been co-opted by the Paladin class who must exemplify by-the-book Lawful Goodness. And in doing so, destroy the entire alignment for everybody else.
Of course, nothing stops a character — or a class — from having an ethos beyond that of their alignment. Clerics ought to take their ethos from the god they worship. Paladins have their whole Paladin code, and so on. Druids have their philosophy of balance.
So what happens to neutrality?
True Neutral: The “true” neutral looks upon all other alignments as facets of the system of things. Thus, each aspect – evil and good, chaos and law – of things must be retained in balance to maintain the status quo; for things as they are cannot be improved upon except temporarily, and even then but superficially. Nature will prevail and keep things as they were meant to be, provided the “wheel” surrounding the hub of nature does not become unbalanced due to the work of unnatural forces – such as human and other intelligent creatures interfering with what is meant to be.
True neutrality has always seemed a little out of whack to me. Using the Player’s Handbook‘s own definitions, how is True Neutral seeking …
… balance between Law and Chaos, where Chaos is “randomness” and Law “law and order”? It sounds like the True Neutral — waiting for Nature to prevail, and standing against the interference of intelligent creatures — ought to be (passively) chaotic.
… balance between Good and Evil, where good respects freedom and life, and evil seeks the end to freedom and life? (Presumably the goal of those who are maximizing evilness).
True Neutral sounds a lot like Chaotic Good to us – not the textbook version of it, where each alignment has its own peculiar definition, but taking the concepts of “Chaotic” and “Good” as expressed, and combining them. Experience has taught us that there are two types of True Neutral characters — those that are a pain in the ass, trying to play Switzerland in an individual, and those that are playing what we consider to be a de-facto Chaotic Good.
We do not like True Neutral.
Using our revised definitions, True Neutral would represent a “balance” between trying to uphold the current cosmological order of things, and usurp it. And a balance between fighting for and repressing the freedoms of others.
None of this makes sense. We still dislike True Neutral.
The Druids can have something like True Neutral, as a class ethos, but for your Big Bad Blogger, True Neutral kind of stinks.
House Rule 3: Redefining alignment restrictions
In D&D, Clerics are traditionally unrestricted in terms of alignment. Not so in my games.
A Cleric or Priest character is heavily invested in the current cosmological order. All clerics or priests must therefore be Lawful, Lawful Good, or Lawful Evil. Exceptions can be made for this rule, if the cleric/priest worships the Cthulu in the example above, or a god that otherwise wishes to usurp the order of things. In these cases, the cleric can be Chaotic.
A cleric or priest must be Lawful or Chaotic.
Additionally, a cleric’s alignment may be restricted (on a good/evil basis) based on the god he or she follows. All clerics or priests will be additionally restricted by their god’s ethos.
Druids have no alignment restrictions.
They are, however, restricted by an ethos which resembles “True Neutral” above. They believe that those things that influence human activity, be they greed, compassion, the rule of law, or the directives of the divine, are themselves forces of nature which balance.
Paladins are no longer restricted to being Lawful Good. They must, however, continue to be Lawful.
Additionally, Paladins (as part of religious military orders) face other restrictions in terms of ethos, as per traditional Paladins.
Rangers, Assassins and Monks
The Ranger’s restriction (good alignments only) remains. This is rationalised from the origins of the class in Tolkien’s books.
The Monk’s Lawful restriction also remains — this is in keeping with the notes on Paladins and Clerics above. It is an interesting thought to have Chaotic Monks, but these would have to be NPCs, or to be a well-thought-out part of a game.
The Assassin class has never sat well with us, as it seems more like a thief with a particular profession. However, a free-willed assassin ought to be evil in our books.
Why have alignment at all?
Before calling that a wrap, we feel that we should comment on why we would include alignment at all in our game.
It is certainly a good question — most current systems do not include alignments, and when we played D&D as a youngster, alignment was house-ruled out, or otherwise disregarded.
But in building a game with an “old school” feel, it seems wrong to rob it of one of the key aspects of the game. Spells such as Detect Evil and Protection from Evil do not mean much without the alignment system. It simply comes down to the feeling that a character in a throwback game ought to have an alignment on their character sheet.
Once that decision was made, the trouble of making alignment palatable to your blogger reared its head. The above is the best solution we have at present.
We do wonder how others choose to tackle alignment. Please leave a comment and let us know.